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Finding ways to connect

Nursing homes preparing for outdoor visits — but in the meantime, families finding other ways to connect with residents

Long-term care facilities like Avera Morningside Heights in Marshall have had to adapt to COVID-19 in a variety of ways. Not only have in-person visits been restricted, but staff wear personal protective equipment and some social activities are now using social distancing.

As Minnesota responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the places most affected have been long-term care facilities. Nursing homes and assisted living centers have had to stop allowing in-person visitors and change some of their activities to allow for social distancing.

It hasn’t been an easy few months for residents, or their families.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Mary Swanson, administrator at Avera Morningside Heights in Marshall. “It’s hard not having visitors in the building, but families have been very understanding.”

Area long-term care facilities may be taking some steps back to having in-person visits in the near future, under new guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health. This week, area facilities said they weren’t yet at the point where they can go back to in-person visits, but they were making plans.

Last week, the MDH issued guidance for outdoor visits at congregate care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living centers. The MDH’s guidance lays out criteria for outdoor visits, including that visits should be scheduled, and that visitors must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Outdoor visitation areas should also have enough space for residents and visitors to be at least six feet apart, and both residents and visitors must wear a mask.

Morningside Heights hopes to be able to offer outdoor visits with residents, Swanson said this week. However, she said the plan for visit procedures was still being worked out. The visiting area would likely be in front of Morningside Heights, so visitors wouldn’t come through the building. Visitors and residents would also need to follow state guidance about distancing.

Kathy Johnson, administrator of Minneota Manor Health Care Facility in Minneota, said they weren’t yet open for outdoor visits this week. However, they were planning for it, she said.

Pat Mellenthin, CEO of Prairie Home Hospice and Community Care said Prairie Home will start allowing families to schedule outdoor visits starting July 1. Prairie Home operates two hospice houses in Marshall, as well as the Prairie Home Fieldcrest residential facility in Cottonwood.

Mellenthin said families will still be encouraged to follow the six-foot social distancing guidelines at outdoor visits, but it will be a chance for residents and families to be closer than they have been this spring.

With visits restricted at area long-term care facilities, staff and residents have been trying to find other ways to connect with their families over the past few months.

“It has changed everybody’s world,” Johnson said of COVID-19. Long-term care facilities need to balance getting residents the connection they need, with a need to keep everyone safe, she said.

“It gets to be a long time,” Mellenthin said. “It’s a long time, not to physically be with your family.”

Mellenthin said some residents and their families have had to make difficult choices, like not attending a wedding in person in order to protect their health. “Special occasions are really hard.”

Videoconferencing programs are one option many facilities are turning to.

“We use iPads, and FaceTime,” Johnson said.

Swanson said residents at Morningside Heights have been making good use of a donation of iPads to talk with their families, as well. Area care facility administrators said families have also opted to do “window visits,” where they stand outside a resident’s window and interact that way.

Mellenthin said limiting visitors at a hospice house presents its own challenges, as family members want to get a chance to be with their loved one at the end of his or her life.

“For the last three-and-a-half months or so, we’ve had restrictions at all of our facilities,” including the hospice houses, she said. However if a person in hospice’s condition declines, she said, Prairie Home will generally make accommodations for families to be able to visit and say goodbye.

Area care facilities have had to work social distancing into their activities schedules too, administrators said.

“We’ve gotten very creative with hallway bingo, and racing remote-control cars,” Swanson said. By holding bingo games in the hallways at Morningside heights instead of a common area, residents can play while still keeping a social distance. “We’ve also had volunteers fill bird feeders,” which has given residents something to watch outside, too, Swanson said.

“We’re trying to be creative, and do as well as we can under the circumstances,” Mellenthin said. At Prairie Home Fieldcrest, residents were treated to a drive-by parade led by the Cottonwood Fire Department.

In Marshall, the Shades of the Past classic car club wasn’t able to offer rides to nursing home and assisted living residents like they usually do each spring. So instead, club members cruised past four different facilities, as residents watched and waved.

While going months without an in-person visit has been tough, administrators said residents and families are staying strong.

“Our families have been wonderful, and very patient,” Swanson said.

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